“On January 1, the Wuhan Public Security Bureau issued a legal summons to Dr. Li Wenliang, accusing him of ‘spreading rumors.’ Two days later, at a police station, Dr. Li signed a statement acknowledging his ‘misdemeanor’ and promising not to commit further ‘unlawful acts.’ Seven other people are arrested on similar charges and their fate is unknown.” As shown by a New York Times study based on cell data, on that day 175,000 people left Wuhan. At the time, 21 countries had flights directly to Wuhan.
Authorities Finally Start Accepting
In a report written later, Chinese authorities acknowledge that 2019-nCoV (COVID-19) may “have acquired the ability for efficient human transmission” by the start of January. On the same day, the COVID-19 genome was fully sequenced, but it took China a week to share this data. By January 3, “China’s National Health Commission, the nation’s top health authority, ordered institutions not to publish any information related to the unknown disease, and ordered labs to transfer any samples they had to designated testing institutions, or to destroy them.”
About a month after the first cases in Wuhan, the US was notified by China. While China was still denying human-to-human transmission, Ho Pak-leung of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Infection warned, “the city should implement the strictest possible monitoring system for a mystery new viral pneumonia that has infected dozens of people on the mainland, as it is highly possible that the illness is spreading from human to human.”
The Information is Out
On January 8, Chinese authorities publicly identified the virus. They continued to claim that “there is no evidence that the new virus is readily spread by humans, which would make it particularly dangerous, and it has not been tied to any deaths.” WHO then declared that, “Preliminary identification of a novel virus in a short period of time is a notable achievement and demonstrates China’s increased capacity to manage new outbreaks . . . WHO does not recommend any specific measures for travelers. WHO advises against the application of any travel or trade restrictions on China based on the information currently available.”
But the Contradictions in Information Continue
On January 12, Dr. Li Wenliang was hospitalized for coughing and a fever after treating a coronavirus patient. Still, the Wuhan City Health Commission declared that “there is no evidence the virus can spread among humans.” But, “Chinese doctors continued to find transmission among family members, contradicting the official statements from the city health commission.” On January 14, authorities said, “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus (2019- nCoV) identified in Wuhan, China.” Yet this was five to six weeks after the first human-to-human transmission in Wuhan. On January 17, DHS and the CDC announced entry-screening for travelers from Wuhan at three U.S. airports, San Francisco, JFK, and Los Angeles.
The Quarantine Begins
January 23 begins the first steps for a quarantine of Wuhan by the Chinese authorities. NR states, “By this point, millions have already visited the city and left it during the Lunar New Year celebrations. Singapore and Vietnam report their first cases, and by now an unknown but significant number of Chinese citizens have traveled abroad as asymptomatic, oblivious carriers.” By January 26, new cases are reported in Los Angeles, Orange County, and Arizona; “The virus is in now in several locations in the United States, and the odds of preventing an outbreak are dwindling to zero.”
China’s Moves by January are Positive
Turning to a slightly more pro-Beijing perspective, a March 17 article in Nature outlines some of the positive actions taken by China in the face of this disease. Key actions included “extreme lockdowns” and regional quarantines. By January, movement in and out of Wuhan was stopped. Those affected included “more than 60 million people. Flights and trains were suspended, and roads were blocked.” Next, many Chinese cities ordered residents to remain home, with about 760 million people so confined. Currently, new cases are almost zero. “[E]xtreme limitations on population movement have been quite successful,” according to Michael Osterholm, an infectious-disease scientist at the University of Minnesota.
In a February report, WHO congratulated China on a “unique and unprecedented public health response [that] reversed the escalating cases.” Nature notes that “the crucial question is which interventions in China were the most important in driving down the spread of the virus,” says Gabriel Leung, an infectious-disease researcher at the University of Hong Kong.
‘The countries now facing their first wave [of infections] need to know this,’ he says.” Solid estimates were that if China did not stop the COVID-19’s spread, it would have infected around 500 million people, or 40% of China’s population. But the spread rate was cut sharply by the lock-downs and quarantines. Experts feel the one big flaw in China was simple delay.
But Local Coverups in December Not Forgotten
As noted by the National Review, the slowness of the Wuhan government may have been a key driver of the world crisis. One model simulation by Shengjie and Tatem at the University of Southampton showed that a one-week advance in virus-control implementation might well have prevented 67% of China’s COVID-19 cases; according to University of Michigan researcher Howard Markel, “The delay of China to act is probably responsible for this world event.”
Information can at times be heavily censured in China by multiple levels of government, hence it is extremely difficult to pinpoint the truth. However, enough information was available, by local and national government sources, for a conclusion that some form of appeared to occur; moreover, this could still be ongoing based on local Chinse resident reports that information shared by citizens about the pandemic is being censored by the Chinese government. All nations need to learn from this experience. A candid, data-driven, evidence-based and collaborative environment—regardless of political ideology—must also embrace relatively free flows of information coupled with an appropriately planned, methodical and timely pandemic response, so all people can be better off tomorrow. After all, the world knows few true boundaries.